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Sweeney: 'Women's sport is here to stay...we need to make sure it grows as quickly as possible'

By Martyn Thomas
RFU CEO Bill Sweeney -Robbie Stephenson/JMP - 09/04/2024 - RUGBY - North Bristol RFC - Impact 25 Celebration

Rugby Football Union (RFU) CEO Bill Sweeney insisted the governing body needs to ensure the women’s game “grows as quickly as possible” as he helped mark 500 days to go until Women’s Rugby World Cup 2025 by unveiling its legacy programme, Impact ‘25.


Sweeney was speaking at North Bristol RFC, where the RFU announced that £12.13 million of government funding had already been committed to the programme.

Impact ’25 will be delivered by the RFU in partnership with the UK government, Sport England and UK Sport and aims to provide substantial improvements in facilities and greater opportunities for females at all levels of the game in England.

The other home unions will share funding – expected to reach £1m – to develop female coaches, match officials and pathways.

It is hoped the initiative will also help the RFU grow female participation numbers in England from 40,000 to 100,000 by 2027. The four-year programme began during the 2022-23 season with £3m invested in 655 clubs across England to date.

Although nearly 20,000 travelled to Ashton Gate to watch the Red Roses beat Wales last month and more than 42,000 tickets have already been sold to watch the team play Ireland at Twickenham on 20 April, Sweeney admitted women’s rugby is “still not at that same commercial level as the men’s game”.


“We’re still in a loss position on the women’s game overall but that’s an investment we’re committed to doing longer term,” he added

“It’s important we do that because we all want to get the women’s game to a position of economic sustainability and profitability, so you can reinvest back into it as well.”

And Sweeney – who confirmed the Red Roses would play tests against New Zealand and France this September in preparation for WXV – believes it’s a case of when, not if, the women’s game catches the men’s commercially.

“It’s not a case of ‘will it?’ I think it will,” he said. “The question is how long will it take to get there?


“So, I couldn’t put a figure in terms of the number of years. But if you look at women’s sport, what’s happening with the Lionesses in football, you see it across cricket now as well, that’s going extremely well – women’s sport is here to stay.

“It’s a reality and we need to make sure it grows as quickly as possible.”

The RFU CEO is confident the Red Roses can help rugby connect with new, younger fans. “The women’s game is operating a bit of a blank sheet,” he said. “It’s attracting a very, very different audience.

“It was quite interesting; everyone talks about Formula One and Netflix and Drive to Survive – and you’ve seen a Six Nations version of that now and there might be a second series of that – but when Formula One launched that Drive to Survive series, the biggest growth in viewership was young women in America.

“So, you probably wouldn’t have said that’s a likely outcome, but I think we can do the same in rugby and we’ve got to connect with a younger audience.”

Current Red Roses Sarah Bern and Amber Reed, as well as Rugby World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi and England football legend Fara Williams, were also in North Bristol to watch some U12, U14 and U16 girls’ training sessions.

Reed admits the visibility of the game has improved greatly since she first joined Bristol back in 2009.

“Cath Spencer, the [then] England captain, was in that squad and I had no idea who she was,” she said. “I was pretty embarrassed about that, but I also had no way of knowing who she was.

“Maggie was probably one of the biggest or most well-known players at the time, whereas the rest of the squad you didn’t really get a chance to see in newspapers or on TV.

“So, actually to see those girls being able to get to know the personalities of all the players and get to meet us in person on a more regular basis is pretty special.”

The Bristol Bears centre is excited about the prospect of playing a Rugby World Cup on home soil.

“I remember watching the 2010 World Cup and it was at Surrey Sports Park and there were only standing tickets because the games were being played at the same time in the same venue,” Reed said.

“Actually, 2010 felt like a real kick-starter for women’s rugby and 2025 – with record crowds, moving it around the UK, sell-out stadiums – the potential of the legacy that 2025 and the influence that it’s going to have on women’s rugby is going to be huge.”


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